Friend won't stop obsessing about her family dynamics
February 6, 2021 8:27 AM   Subscribe

My friend can hardly talk about any subject other than her family relationship troubles. It's been going on for two years and I'm burning out.

She's a wonderful person so dropping this friendship isn't an option. However I'm noticing more and more that when we get together she will quickly monopolize the conversation and use me as a dumping ground. She's unhappy with the family dynamics in her sibling family and seems to be unable to confront her relative and assert herself. This relative is overbearing and controlling so she's replaying their interactions for me whenever we chat on the phone or meet.

A year ago, I told her to seek a therapist but she said she's got a handle on things and doesn't need one. Where we live a therapist is about $150 an hour and our health insurance only covers $500 a year so I'm not pushing this solution. Instead, I've now become the therapist, it seems.

I have no idea how she is doing at work or her kids because as soon as I inquire, she pivots the conversation to the latest episodes with this relative.

I don't want to sound harsh by pointing out that she's overly obsessing and I don't see a polite way to say "let it go, already". I come up with ideas on how to deal with the relative but there's no end in sight.

She's a great person and was fun before she started using me as an outlet for her troubles. I'd like to see her free of this problem. But how?

Is there some type of therapy that would be beneficial? She's intending to go No Contact with relative after the two parents have passed away but that's not really a solution for now.

I'm not sure what to tell her or how to salvage the friendship part of our relationship.
posted by Coffeetyme to Human Relations (11 answers total)
"Friend, I gotta tell you, I know Relative is the worst, we've been over and over it, and I'm kinda hoping we can talk about something else. I miss you, I miss hearing about the kids, about your career stuff. Can we talk about that? Tell me about what you're working on." -- this should hopefully at least raise the issue for her, and give you a chance in future to interrupt the broken record with "remember how we said we'd try to give it a rest with Relative?"
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:36 AM on February 6, 2021 [19 favorites]

Similarly, after giving them 5-10 minutes to vent during each conversation, explicitly change the subject. "This is horrible, as always, it's not making it happy, let's now talk about X."

I have a couple people in my life who can obsess but this works well on--they know they are obsessing and are cool on being called on it. And TBH one it doesn't (they'll explain why the topic is so important.)
posted by mark k at 9:27 AM on February 6, 2021

Best answer: Ugh, my sympathies on this. I've been in similar situations with friends a few times, and it is not easy.

What has worked for me in the past is starting by expressing empathy for their situation, and then being honest with them about both what I'm seeing in their behaviour, how I'm feeling about it, and what I need/want from our friendship.

In this case, I'd say something along the lines of "Friend, I hear you about how difficult this situation with Sibling X is. A year ago, it was bad enough that I suggested that it would be worth getting some professional advice, and since then, it seems to have gotten better, not worse. You seem really stuck and I am concerned that I am not able to provide the kind of help you need. I'm also finding it really sad that we never talk about anything else, like your kids or what's going on in your career. It makes me miss that part of our friendship. I know that seeing a therapist is a big step and it's up to you how you want to deal with that, but I can't be your sounding board anymore."

Then, use one of the great techniques above to change the subject when she starts in on it again.

It's important to remember that your needs are also important in all this. We're living in very stressful times and you need to protect your own mental health and energy too.
posted by rpfields at 9:33 AM on February 6, 2021 [16 favorites]

At times like these, it’s helpful to remember that boundaries are about your reactions, not controlling other people’s actions.

I suggest that when you bring it up, you don’t focus on her relative, but on how the pattern of your conversations affects you. Put more emphasis on not feeling heard, or that there’s no space for you to get support from the friendship. After putting forward your case for “let’s talk about Relative less” (and hearing out your friend’s responses to that suggestion), set a boundary. When conversation start to overly focus on that topic in the future, ask to change the subject. If she resists that change and returns to the unpleasant topic, excuse yourself and hang up. It seems cold, but if your friend isn’t going to act in a way there respectful of your ability to be present, you need to look out for your own well being and not be present when it stresses you out.

And I know it’s still a chunk of money, but if your friend finds a therapist they like, the therapist might be able to help them find tools and strategies for dealing with their relative in only a few sessions. It takes extra homework and self-work than starting therapy with no end date in mind, but it can be effective.
posted by itesser at 10:08 AM on February 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Therapy would be ideal, as well as GENTLY redirecting friend, but I'm going to suggest something no one else has mentioned. Maybe consider recommending the JustNoFamily subreddit? Part advice, part commiseration, part just a place to rant... chances are, the people there have already seen the same dynamics a time or two or a hundred.

If she was able to transfer at least SOME of the need to talk to there, it would lighten the load on your friendship. And she might gain some helpful suggestions... and likely, will end up with even more people recommending therapy, enough to make her consider it.

It's up to you, of course, but you might consider browsing the sub yourself, so you're familiar with it, especially if she's not very internet-savvy. It's among a groups of subs that are a little different than standard Reddit fare, so it can be good to emphasize that when recommending it to someone.

Also... on the therapy front? I know you said insurance available doesn't go far, but you might look around your local area for any available options that are income-based with an adjustable payscale. That's what I did, even though I have Medicaid right now, because I wanted to know that I would likely be able to afford to continue therapy even if I lost Medicaid.
posted by stormyteal at 10:33 AM on February 6, 2021 [6 favorites]

If you would like a book to read while you are sorting out the therapy part, The Dance of Connection by Harriet Lerner might be helpful for you and your friend. Some of the chapters talk about relationship dynamics similar to the one between you and your friend, and those may be useful to you in getting closer to the friendship you used to have. One thing the book covers that seems relevant to your situation is the dynamic in a relationship where Person A feels helpless and stuck in a situation and Person B in the relationship feels like they have to cede the focus to Person A. It is harmful to both people because Person A has a role of being the needy one and is not able to show their strengths, while Person B has to be the reliable one and is not able to express needs.
From my perspective it is more useful to focus on the things you can change, such as your interactions and relationship with this friend. You can't change her feelings about her family, the issues in her family, or her ability to access therapy, though I think it is very kind of you to try to identify resources for her. I hope that you are both able to get to a place where your relationship is more balanced and more enjoyable.
posted by arachnidette at 10:36 AM on February 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: While I understand that therapy is expensive and health insurance does a pretty terrible job of covering it properly, the alternative that you seem resigned to - you standing in as the therapist - is not at all appropriate for you or your friend. These are not the only two choices. I think it's important to be direct with your friend. Maybe during your next conversation, after friend has spent a few minutes venting, you can tell them that you've noticed that this situation with their relative has dominated your conversations for well over a year and that it's come at the expense of talking about your life and also the other features of their life and that you'd like to work on rebalancing things. Suggest therapy again and tell them that the approach of not going to therapy doesn't seem to be working. If they balk, maybe suggest journaling or some other type of private processing. It's not ok for your friend to just vomit this ongoing family drama onto you because they don't want to face the fact that they need professional help. Your job in a friendship is not to stand in as a defacto therapist. None of this should come as a surprise to your friend. They should be aware that they are dominating your conversations with their recounting of family drama. If they're not and act surprised, I think you should get used to suggesting therapy a lot more often. Right now, it sounds like your friend has become really comfortable with just foisting this mess into your lap instead of resolving to do something about it. Spending $150/hour with a professional may help them to actually take action as they're now shouldering the cost instead of asking you to shoulder it at the expense of your friendship.
posted by quince at 11:13 AM on February 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

I have been your friend. The story I liked to repeat and rehash is a relationship with a parent. I was an emotional vampire without realizing it. I was surely trying to help myself by telling my story and troubles but it didn't help and only seemed to further solidify my victim mentality.

I talked to my husband, my sister, a couple good friends, and a close coworker. They were receptive, wise, and empathetic but I was still stuck and I would continue to repeat my story with no evidence of growth, letting go, or understanding. I wasn't hearing what they were staying because I was stuck and I probably felt some justification or gratification in staying angry. If I were to let go and move on that would mean tolerating or forgiving behavior. My thinking was dysfunctional. Subconsciously, I probably didn't want to forgive or forget. I felt "wronged" and I felt sad. I felt unseen and undervalued. I was in a lot of turmoil and my MO was to talk about it without a lot of awareness about myself or how others were feeling.

When the pain became unbearable, and my relationships were suffering, I finally sought therapy and it helped me to better understand my behavior and pain, the pain of others, human behavior in general, and unhealthy patterns that I was stuck in. With time I had even more growth, awareness, and understanding.

I no longer tell or think about this story. I have let go. It's interesting to look back and to see how much turmoil I was in and how I almost loved to tell my story. It was on the forefront of my mind at all times. I was processing difficult emotions in the best way I knew how but if I would have had professional help or realizations sooner, life would have been easier. I think some direct honesty from friends would have helped. Boundaries would have helped. My boundaries were loose and when people enacted them it did wake me up a bit. Sometimes people need reminders. You might fear disconnection from your friend but there is no real connection when she is repeating her story and you are going along when you don't want to.

I think honesty will likely help your friend. Boundaries enforced gently probably will not alienate your friend. She will probably respect your boundaries and might see how her story is sapping the enjoyment of the moment. We have to be reminded that the family member isn't here with us now at this restaurant. We're having lunch and we are safe and it's supposed to be fun. There is no need to repeat the pain story or the latest drama that is in the mind at this moment.

One of my friends has a girlfriend who rants about politics every time he picks her up for a date. He told me that the last time she got in the car he said, "How about we don't talk about politics this evening?" And she said, "Great idea." Try it and see what happens. Good luck and wishing your friend peace.
posted by loveandhappiness at 11:53 AM on February 6, 2021 [16 favorites]

In a similar situation, here's something that worked. One day, at the beginning of our get together, when Ex came up, I said "Ugh, he's such a jerk. He gets way more of our brain space than he deserves. Let's make today an X-free day. Let's not talk about him at all." And she got behind it.

I had to call it three or four times--"gah, I know. He's such a jerk. No more X today though!"

This worked very well for the day, and I think it sent a message, because the venting was cut down to more like 50% of our time together, rather than 90%. Things went back to feeling like a whole relationship, even though we still talked about him a lot.

I hope you find a way to rescue this. It's very, very hard, especially because it feels like "bad friendship" not to want to talk about it. In my case, it was an ex, but the breakup was over a year old at the point when we hit this point.

Good luck!
posted by gideonfrog at 1:20 PM on February 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

This can be a tough one. I suspect your friend dumps on you because you are one of a small number of people she can talk to about this. I had a similar situation in which a private teacher who was in a genuinely terrible situation that was not likely to resolve positively if at all would spend up to half of our lesson time talking about her problems. She was resistant to talk therapy as well as my suggestions to talk about it “after hours” and so I stopped working with her because I wasn’t getting my money’s worth out of the lessons and progressing. I experienced considerable guilt because we were quite close and the source of most of her problems eventually did resolve in the worst possible way, but it’s unclear what else I could have done. She wasn’t willing (or able, to be fair) to make adjustments that would make it possible for us to continue working together. And that’s the thing: this situation with your friend may not be resolvable if she isn’t willing or able to make adjustments.

You say that she won’t work with a therapist because she’s got a “handle on things,” but it seems pretty evident that’s not true. It’s also not clear whether or why the cost of therapy represents a real barrier for her. If $150 weekly is beyond her means, there are always places that offer income-adjusted rates. Regardless, it is likely to come down to telling her that you have deep sympathy for her issues but that this subject has come to dominate your interactions and friendship, that you not only don’t have the training to help her but if you did it wouldn’t be ethical to therapize her anyway, and that this issue has clearly become enough of a problem that she needs professional help sorting it out. But be prepared for these entreaties to be unavailing. I literally begged my teacher friend to get into regular talk therapy and avail herself of other professional help (especially as I was by no means the only person whose professional relationship with her was similarly affected) but she always had a mouthful of reasons why she couldn’t. All of which is to say that, although you say “dropping this friendship isn't an option,” eventually you will if things don’t change. So, armed with that knowledge you should make a best-faith effort to get her to seek professional help, but bear in mind that she’s the only one who can do that and that ultimately she will be the one effectively “dropping the friendship” if she doesn’t adjust.
posted by slkinsey at 6:50 AM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

By ending the cycle you two are now in, you will be helping her. And you, too. Because you are also invested in this dynamic in that you don't like it but initially were very willing. No judgment as I have been both of you in this situation and, yes, therapy makes a huge difference. Continuing as is will kill your friendship and won't help either of you get better. I could say more but you absolutely understand as you are looking for ways to set healthier boundaries and are very self-aware about it all.

There are a number of counseling apps available like Talkspace and Betterhelp. I haven't used them but they have been proven to help, and are much more affordable than in-person counseling. Likewise, there are therapists abroad who can really help. I know of good, qualified, experienced Argentine and Venezuelan therapists who charge maybe $40 a hour for sessions online.

Instagram has so many great accounts by therapists and therapy-enthusiasts on setting and maintaining boundaries. My favorite is Nedra Glover Tawwab, who has a website, too.

I wish you both the best of luck! You are a kind friend.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:39 AM on February 7, 2021

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